· 3 min read · Features

How to make financial services more diverse

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When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, Christine Lagarde, now head of the IMF, quipped that had it been Lehman Sisters, the economic crisis would look very different.

Initially a throw- away comment, her view resonated with women all over the world. And it's one that Andi Keeling, director of Women's Markets at RBS and diversity champion, echoes when HR meets her for coffee in the heart of London's still glittering, if slightly dulled, financial sector.

"Women do approach risk differently," says Keeling. "And in truth, if it had been 'Lehman Brothers and Sisters', then maybe, just maybe, it would have stood a chance. Some of the decisions that were made at the top would have been challenged, not just by women, but because diversity would have led to a different discussion at board level about those decisions."

For Keeling, who has worked at RBS in a variety of roles since 1983, diversity and what she calls 'balance' are absolutely key to the creation of a better banking sector. Her newly created role sends a clear message that RBS is taking her favourite subject seriously. Women's Markets is a new area for the bank, covering three main strands: the internal recruitment, attraction and retention of women in senior roles; the external support of female clients, both in SMEs and large corporations; and the leveraging of partnerships with organisations that support women in business, such as Everywoman and An Inspirational Journey.

"I've always had an interest in diversity," says Keeling, "partly, because I'm a woman, and whenever you looked up the hierarchy, there were fewer and fewer women the higher up you looked. It's not as much about 'fairness' as balance and valuing whatever people bring that's different to the person sitting next to them. If we are going to start taking diversity seriously, we need to invest. We chose women's markets, as gender is where we can make the biggest difference." Keeling reports directly to the CEO - further proof of how seriously the initiative is being taken.

Recently, reports about women on boards and possible quotas have filled the media, but according to Keeling, focusing only on women at the top is a risky strategy. "What happens when those women move on?" she asks. "What if we haven't got the women underneath them prepared and ready to start? The big investment needs to be in the pipeline. In two or three years, women will be ready for those senior board positions, whereas now, I don't believe the women are there to do it."

She advocates training and development, in some cases women-only, and offering women-only networking opportunities. Investing in initiatives to boost confidence is also high on her agenda. "If you speak to girls at schools, most of them don't have an issue with confidence," she says. "They believe they can go and do whatever they want. Somehow, somewhere, that loses its way, especially in a sector like ours. We need to retain or rebuild that confidence."

Banking's reputation is not what it once was, and Keeling admits that "there are probably a lot of women who don't want to come into banking right now". The solution to that, she believes, is to create more positive, visible role models. "If you look back a few years, the role models we had then were not necessarily the right ones," she says. "It was women at the top who had got there on their own merit, but who had sacrificed so much. We need women who will help others - some with children, some without, some married, some single, some gay, some straight, so that women can look up and think, that's me, I can do that." And as the most senior 'out' lesbian at RBS, Keeling is playing that role (model) very well herself.

On the subject of quotas, she is very much in the 'no' camp. "Everyone, men and women, should get where they get to on merit; they should be the right person for the job," she says. "And what do you do when you reach the quota? Who's to say that's right? It could potentially damage businesses in the long term. Whereas if we fill the pipeline with a diverse mix, men and women, and really focus on talent and getting the right people to the top, there will naturally be a mix."

She admits it might sound "silly", but Keeling's ultimate aim is to do herself out of a job. "If I do this properly, Women's Markets won't exist in a few years'," she says. "If I do it right, it will just become normal. And that goes for all strands of diversity, not just gender."

But until that day comes, she will be leading by example.